HMS Wager (1739)

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The destruction of HMS Wager on the West coast of Chile
The destruction of HMS Wager on the West coast of Chile
Career (UK) Flag of the British East India Company (1707).svg East India Company
Name: Wager
Launched: c. 1734
Fate: Sold to the Royal Navy in 1739
Career (UK)  Royal Navy
Name: HMS Wager
Cost: £3,912 2s 1½d
Acquired: Purchased on 21 November 1739
Commissioned: December 1739
Fate: Wrecked off Chile on 14 May 1741
General characteristics
Class and type: Sixth-rate (ex-Indiaman)
Tons burthen: 558 82/94
Length: 123 ft (37 m)[1] (gundeck)
Beam: 32 ft 2 in (9.80 m)[1]
Depth of hold: 14 ft 4 in (4.37 m)[1]
Sail plan: Ship rig
Complement: East India Company: 98 men
Royal Navy: 160 men
Armament: 28 guns

HMS Wager was a square-rigged sixth-rate Royal Navy ship of 28 guns. She was built as an East Indiaman in about 1734 and made two voyages to India before being purchased by the Royal Navy in 1739. She formed part of a squadron under Anson and was wrecked on the south coast of Chile on 14 May 1741. The wreck of the Wager became famous for the subsequent adventures of the survivors who found themselves marooned on a desolate island in the middle of a Patagonian winter, and in particular because of the Wager Mutiny which followed.

Service in the East India Company

Wager was an East Indiaman, an armed trading vessel built mainly to accommodate large cargoes of goods from the Far East. She measured 123 ft 0in on the gundeck, 101 ft 4.125in on the keel, 32 ft 2.375in breadth and 14 ft 4in depth in hold, giving a burthen tonnage of 558 82/94.[2] As an Indiaman she carried 30 guns and had a crew of 98.[3]

Under Captain Charles Raymond she sailed from the Downs on 13 February 1735, arriving in Madras on 18 July and returning to England via St Helena in July 1736. She made her second and final run for the Company to India in 1738, sailing via the Cape of Good Hope to Madras and Bengal, and returning to the Downs on 27 August 1739.[3][4]

Purchase by the Royal Navy

She was purchased from Mr J Raymond of the East India Company on 21 November 1739 for £3,912 2s 1½d.[2] She was bought to form part of a squadron under Commodore George Anson to attack Spanish interests on the Pacific west coast of South America. Intended to carry additional stores of small arms, ball and powder to arm shore raiding parties, she was rated as a 28-gun sixth-rate. It was fitting that she carried the name of the principal sponsor of the voyage, Admiral Sir Charles Wager.

She was fitted for naval service at Deptford Dockyard between 23 November 1739 and 23 May 1740 at a cost of £7,096.2.4d,[2] and was registered as a sixth-rate on 22 April 1740, being established with 120 men and 28 guns.[2]

Anson's circumnavigation

George Anson led an expedition to the Pacific in August 1740 consisting of 6 warships and 2 transports, and manned by 1854 men. The Navy purchased Wager specifically for this mission and commissioned her under Captain Dandy Kidd. Kidd died before the ship reached Cape Horn, and Lieutenant David Cheap was promoted to his position. In rounding Cape Horn in terrible weather, the ships of the squadron were scattered, and Wager became separated. In attempting to make her rendezvous, she turned North before sufficient distance had been made to the West, and in foul weather closed the coast of modern-day Chile.

The wreck of the Wager

The Wreck of the Wager, the frontispiece from John Byron's account

On 13 May 1741 at 9:00am, the carpenter went forward to inspect the chain plates. Whilst there he thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of land to the west. Lieutenant Baynes was also there but he saw nothing, and the sighting was not reported. Consequently, no one realized that Wager had entered a large uncharted bay.

At 2:00pm land was positively sighted to the west and northwest and all hands were mustered to make sail and turn the ship to the southwest. During the operations that followed, Captain Cheap fell down the quarterdeck ladder, dislocated his shoulder, and was confined below. The ship's disabled and worn-out condition severely hampered efforts to get clear of the bay.

At 4:30am the next day the ship struck rocks repeatedly, broke its tiller, and although still afloat, was partially flooded. Invalids below who were too sick to get out of their hammocks were drowned. The ship was steered with sail alone towards land, but later in the morning the ship struck again, and this time became hard aground.

Wager had struck the coast of what would subsequently be known as Wager Island in position 47°40′43″S 75°02′57″W / 47.67861°S 75.04917°W / -47.67861; -75.04917. Some of the crew broke into the spirit room and got drunk, armed themselves and began looting, dressing up in officers' clothes and fighting. The other 140 men and officers took to the boats and made it safely on shore. On the following day, Friday 15 May, the ship bilged amidships and many of the drunken crew still on board drowned.

The Wager mutiny

In the Royal Navy of 1741 the commissions of the officers were valid only for the ship to which they had been appointed. The loss of the ship meant also the loss of any official authority. To make matters worse, the seaman ceased to be paid on the loss of their ship. These factors, combined with terrible conditions and murderous in-fighting between officers and men, caused discipline to break down. The party split into two parts; 81 men under the Gunner, Mr Bulkley, took to small boats with the aim of returning to England via the East coast of South America, and 20 men remained on Wager Island, including Captain Cheap. After a series of disasters and over 5 years later, 6 of Bulkley's group and 4 of Captain Cheap's group returned to England. Wager had left England with the best part of 300 men onboard.

The wrecksite

In the years after the wreck the Spanish sent expeditions to recover the guns and to establish a foothold in the area.[1] Spanish charts of the mid-Eighteenth Century show the approximate location of the wreck, indicating that it was well-known to the local elite at the time.[1]

In late 2006, a Scientific Exploration Society expedition searched for the wreck of the Wager and found, in shallow water, a piece of a wooden hull with some of the frames and external planking. Carbon-14 dating indicated a date contemporary with the Wager.[5][6] In 2007, the Transpatagonia Expedition visited the wreck site and saw more remains.[1]

HMS Wager in fiction

The novel The Unknown Shore (pub. 1959) by Patrick O'Brian is based on the accounts of the survivors. One of the crew on Wager was Midshipman John Byron, later Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy and grandfather of the famous poet George Byron. O'Brian's novel closely follows John Byron's account.[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "Patagonia Incógnita (Spanish Language)". Retrieved 2009-10-11. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Winfield, Rif (2007). British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Wager at the National Archives". Retrieved 2009-10-13. 
  4. Sutton, Jean (2000). Lords of the East: the East India Company and its ships (1600-1874). London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0851777864. 
  5. "The Scientific Society website". Retrieved 2009-10-11. 
  6. "HMS Wager found off Chile? - Cyber Dive News Network". Retrieved 2009-10-11. 
  7. O'Brian, Patrick (1959). The Unknown Shore. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-225409-3. 
  • John Bulkeley and John Cummins. A Voyage to the South-Seas in the Years 1740-1. London: Jacob Robinson, 1743. Second edition, with additions, London, 1757.
  • Alexander Campbell. The sequel to Bulkeley and Cummins's voyage to the South-seas. London: W. Owen, 1747.
  • Anon. An Affecting Narrative of the Unfortunate Voyage and Catastrophe of His Majesty's Ship Wager. London: J. Norwood, 1751.
  • Isaac Morris. Narrative of the Dangers and Distresses which befel Isaac Morris and seven more of the crew. London: S. Birt, 1752.
  • John Byron. Narrative of the Hon. John Byron; Being an Account of the Shipwreck of The Wager; and the Subsequent Adventures of Her Crew, 1768. Second edition, 1785.
  • Robert Kerr. A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, Arranged in Systematic Order, XVII. Edinburgh and London, 1824. Includes Byron's account, pp. 313–414 (327-428 of the pdf), and Bulkeley's, pp. 415–529 (429-543 of the pdf).
  • W. J. Fletcher. The Wreck of the Wager, Cornhill Magazine, New Series, volume 16 (January-June 1904), 394-411. O
  • Philip Edwards, The Story of the Voyage: Sea-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, 2004, pp. 53–78.
  • Pack, S. W. C. (1964). The Wager Mutiny. A. Redman. OCLC 5152716. 
  • Somerville, Henry Boyle Townshend (1934). Commodore Anson's Voyage Into the South Seas and Around the World. W. Heinemann. OCLC 5914627.